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A couple weeks before spring break I did something I hadn’t ever done before – I brought an author and publisher into my classroom using Skype.  My students were starting to work on some memoir writing and, in a moment of inspiration, I thought to myself, “Why not Skype a publisher to hear his or her perspective on what makes a memoir good?”  So I Googled “publishing companies in Vancouver” and followed the breadcrumbs until I found myself at the Harbour Publishing website and speaking with Howard White, a renowned BC author and publisher.  Three phone calls later, he Skyped into my classroom and was talking to my students about what makes a memoir good and the process of writing in general.  He was brilliant, and my students were totally engaged.

The experience of having a professional writer in my classroom was in itself totally worth it, but there was another completely unexpected byproduct of this Skype conversation.

In university, I started writing a treeplanting memoir for one of my classes; I continued working on it for a number of years after my degree was completed.  But then, due to the busyness of teaching, completing a masters, starting a family, and a myriad other excuses, I fell out of writing and it lay dormant for years.  As I was listening to Howard speak to my students about the writing process, I found the dying ember of my writing beginning to burn again.  What an unexpected joy!  Since then, I’ve found myself inspired and looking for excuses to write.

Perhaps then, it is an axiom that authentic learning experiences have the potential to inspire both students and teachers alike.

 

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I had a crazy experience today.

It happened as I walked into a store with my one year old son and immediately recognized the store clerk as she was helping some customers.  Although I had no idea where I recognized her from, as I was squeezing the stroller around her customers she noticed me and stopped what she was doing.

“Hey!  I know you from somewhere,” she said.  “I know!  I had you as a teacher; you’re Mr. Rempel!”  At this point I felt a little bit awkward because I couldn’t tell you the first thing about this young woman and a little bit embarrassed because of the attention I was getting and because her customers were now also scrutinizing me.  However, I was also amazed because I knew that I didn’t recognize her from my time working in the learning centres which meant that I must have taught her when I was working as a substitute teacher eight years ago.

She enthusiastically continues, “I remember you because you made an impact on my life!”

“Thank you” I say in appreciation, “but I’m sorry, I don’t remember which school you went to.” She told me which school it was and after a bit more friendly chit chat and not finding what I wanted at the store, I left.  As I walked home with son, who was making loud exclamations at every car that passed by, I suddenly remembered when I taught her – it wasn’t when I was substitute teacher, it was when I was doing my student teaching nine years ago!  At the very most, I would have been her teacher for six weeks, and let me tell you, I really struggled in my curriculum development and delivery during my practicum.  Yet somehow, despite all my inadequacies as a beginning teacher, I made an impact on this young woman – enough for her to remember my name nine years later.

I don’t know about other teachers, but it’s rare for me to run into former students.  Sometimes, at random moments on any given day, I’ll think about past students and wonder what they’re doing in life – about whether anything I taught them made a difference.  It’s comforting to know that it’s not only about the quality of my lessons or my use of technology that has an impact on students, but in the genuine care and belief we as teachers have in who our students are as individuals.

I floated through the rest of the evening.

 

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If you’re a teacher in the Lower Mainland (and most likely in the rest of British Columbia as well), it doesn’t matter where you look, the call for educational reform is there – in your face.  Teachers and principals are talking about it.  The Twitterverse and blogosphere are filled with the call for teachers to reform, to implement more technology, to fall into the loving arms of inquiry.  There are workshops, professional development days, district conferences, edcamps, and all manner of un, dis, anti, and re learning opportunities.  Yet despite all of the push for teachers to think about teaching and learning from a new paradigm and the evidence that demonstrates that it’s needed, there are still educators resistant to change.  Why?

No matter how many ultra-inspiring workshops a teacher attends or passionate presenters they listen to, these alone are not in themselves enough to inspire long lasting change.  How many of us have been inspired by an amazing presentation only to find ourselves teaching in our same old ways a week or two later?  If your hand isn’t way up in the air, either you have only been to one really amazing presentation or your nose is getting longer!  The truth of the matter is that lasting change must come from within.

Although this answer probably doesn’t surprise you, I haven’t been to a single presentation that has really unpacked this idea.  This doesn’t mean that workshops or presentations can’t inspire change, only that if they are going to lead to transformation, a work of change must have already started within the teacher.  The most difficult part of change is coming to the place where you can admit to yourself that change is needed.  That perhaps you aren’t happy with what you’re doing or how you’re doing things.  I think that the realization that you’re unhappy is often very slow in developing, resting in the subconscious until one day you’re going for a walk, or eating breakfast, or driving home and suddenly you’re face to face with the fact that you’re unhappy.  It is at that point that deep, transformational change is possible.  A question that can tease out whether you’re ready to start thinking about change is simply complex:

“Are you happy and/or passionate about how and what you do as a teacher?”

I haven’t met a single new teacher who is lackluster or unmotivated about getting into teaching.  Most enter into the profession because they are passionate about their subject area, teaching, and students.  In contrast, I have met numerous teachers who have taught 10+ years who seem jaded, unmotivated, and unhappy.  What happens in the those years?  What is it that can steal the joy of teaching and replace it with resignation or apathy?  There are lots of reasons that could contribute to this unhappiness: overcrowded classrooms, lack of funding, lack of support, lack of resources, government interference, or student disengagement.  To be fair, these are real issues that present significant obstacles in the classroom.  However, I’m convinced that to let these issues steal the joy and happiness that comes from teaching is unfair to both the teacher and the student.  The late Steve Jobs said in a commencement address to Stanford University grads in 2005 that, “I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”  Is there anything that you need to change in order to bring back your passion for teaching?

Another equally important question that might serve as a litmus test that change is needed is below:

Are your students learning in a meaningful and relevant way?

If you are happy but the learning in your classroom isn’t meaningful or relevant for your students, this is another indication that things need to change.  If the answer to either of these questions is ‘no,’ the next critical (and very difficult) question is:  What do I need to change to restore my passion or effectiveness as a teacher?

This is the topic for another post!

Last week I had a student tell me that he hates poetry.  A number of other students expressed a similar sentiment.  “Fair enough,” I told this student, “but I don’t believe you.  I think you actually like poetry.”  Presumptuous?  Maybe.  Then I showed my class this video:

It’s rare for my class to be so completely engaged in something that everything else fades away – yet  as I watched my students watch this video they were captivated.  When the video finished, instead of the usual chatter of opinions and thoughts, there were a few seconds of complete silence.  This isn’t a normal occurrence in my class!  A student asked if I knew of any other videos like this one – when I said yes, but that I was going to share them at some other point, I nearly had a mutiny on my hands!

I still get a lump in my throat every time I watch this video.

Any teacher who has taken students on any form of overnight adventure – especially if it involves the outdoors – knows that it is a huge headache.  There are a myriad different permission forms that need to be sent out: medical forms, parent and student consent forms, liability forms, my-child-will-be-good-and-will-obey-all-the-rules forms, acknowledgement of the ‘dangerous’ nature of the trip forms, and waiver forms for the waiver form.  And then you have to ensure that all the students bring in their forms.  Once you think all the forms are in and completed, you realize that half the students didn’t notice there was a backside to one of the forms and you have to send it back again.  It’s enough to make your hair go grey and fall out!

This was my life for the first three weeks of September.  Then, in the final week of September when all the forms were finally collected, I took my co-op students on a three day trip to Garibaldi Provincial Park.  We hiked up to a campsite at Taylor Meadows near Garibaldi Lake.  On our second day we started towards a mountain called Panorama Ridge.  Anyone who’s been to this area knows that it is one of the most spectacularly scenic areas in all of BC.  From the campsite, you walk through lush alpine meadows, where the autumn leaves on the low bushes are a fiery display of red, orange, and yellow.  While slowly gaining elevation, you get glimpses of the impossibly turquoise blue of Garibaldi Lake and a number of glaciated ranges in the distance.  Ascending the final ridge up to the peak is like listening to a forty-five minute rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus with a ever increasing crescendo to the very top.  And then you reach the summit.

Words cannot adequately express the majesty of the landscape before you.

Garibaldi Lake is spread out in its entirety before you – surrounded by massive crevasse-gashed glaciers and mountains that demand attention.  Garibaldi Mountain stands like a sleeping giant, wrapped in a heavy blanket of snow.  The Black Tusk, the leftover remnants of a prehistoric magma chamber stands dark and silent as it keeps a watchful eye over the surrounding landscape.  Even the large, surrounding  mountains seem to pay homage to this ancient sentinel.  The summit itself is rocky and barren – gradually eroding away – a whisper of its former glory yet still glorious.  The landscape is massive and wild – it demands respect and commands awe.

Despite the awesome beauty of nature that surrounded us, I think that my greatest joy came from watching and listening to my students.  Hearing them use the words beauty and beautiful over and over again or talking about how much the students who didn’t come were missing made all the paperwork and preparation stress seem trivial.

There is something very deep that happens in the wilderness – in some way, the mountains, the cool mountain air and amazing views have a way of speaking to the soul.  This may seem somewhat sensationalistic or perhaps overly sentimental, but I don’t know of any other way to describe it.

Evidence of this inner dialogue is clear.  Students open up in ways they never do in the classroom.  Conversations and conversation topics are different – somehow more real.  On top of this, I see things in my students that I would never see or get to see teaching English in a traditional classroom.

The beauty of the natural environment in itself is not enough to initiate this deep, spiritual, conversation within people.  If we had flown up to the summit in a helicopter and spent half an hour lounging at the top, it would have been a very different experience.  The power of the wilderness to transform comes from something very different – struggle and adversity.  Getting to our campsite at Taylor Meadows required a 7.7km uphill grunt with full packs – not an easy endeavor.  It was especially difficult because it was the first time most of my students had ever attempted something like this.  It took about fifteen minutes of hiking before most of them realized that it was going to be more difficult than they expected!  By the time we reached the six kilometer mark, shoulders were aching, backs were in agony, legs were on fire, and the lively conversation had gradually become subdued.  Thankfully, everyone made it the last 1.7 km!

The beauty of the wilderness is born out of struggle.  Trees have to fight other trees and plants for soil and moisture to grow; they have to endure harsh weather conditions and a short growing season in order to survive.  Mountains are created by fire and the movement of titanic underground forces, and are demolished by persistent weather and grinding ice.  Even the animals that live in this environment have adapted to survive – though life still isn’t guaranteed.   I wonder if it is only possible to really appreciate this beauty when it involves struggle.  For my students, the personal transformations I observed on this overnight hiking trip were made possible by the long, sweaty struggle up the mountain.  It was only then that the beauty of our surroundings could begin its work of transformation.

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Finally, I hope that the skills and attitude necessary to enjoy the wilderness will transfer into the classroom.  Here are a few of the main points I hope will transfer:

  1. Having a good attitude is critical.
  2. You can accomplish much more as a team than by yourself.
  3. Know your destination – it will motivate you when you’re hiking through the trees.
  4. Wonder about everything!
  5. Encourage your peers along the way – they might not be having as easy a time as you.
  6. Push yourself – you’ll be glad you did.
  7. Learning, like hiking, requires stamina.

Watching this video was like having my eyes opened to a new dimension that I want to go to as an educator.  Although the ideas are not new, the way they’re communicated really resonated with me.  High Tech High is a school based out of San Diego that is changing the way school works.  Enjoy…but watch at your own risk!

 

Quotes that (really) connected with me:

“Rigour is being in the company of a passionate adult who is rigorously pursuing inquiry in the area of their subject matter and is inviting students along as peers in that adult discourse.”

“If your kids are producing work that’s worth doing and that has lasting value and learning that’s worth learning, you’re a good teacher.”

– Larry Rosenstock

Last week, for the first time that I can remember in my career as a teacher, I hit the wall.  It was epic.  One minute I’m saving my students from illiteracy and then WHAM – I hit the wall like Wile E Coyote.  In reality, I was teaching an English 12 student how to write an academic essay and she got stuck and couldn’t seem to get unstuck.  And then I got stuck.  I tried pretty much everything I knew how to do to help her understand and nothing seemed to help.  I felt like a vehicle stuck in deep mud or snow and no matter how much you push down on the gas, the tires just keep spinning – going nowhere.  And it wasn’t like I was dealing with a disengaged, couldn’t-care-less-about-school student.  She’s bright and highly motivated.  What kind of teacher can’t teach an engaged, smart, highly motivated student?  Hi.  My name is Jonathan, and I have a problem teaching students who want to learn.  Ok, maybe it wasn’t THAT bad, but there were a number of extended moments during which I began to question my ability to teach.

So I swallowed my professional pride and I did something that isn’t normally in my top list of strategies to use when a student is having difficulty with something in my class – I sent her to another teacher to get some help.  I asked for help.  It was liberating for both me and my student.  When she came back into my class, she had a much better understanding about how to approach her essay and felt encouraged as well.  In talking with the teacher who helped her afterwards, I learned about a number of different approaches that I hadn’t previously considered.  At the end of the day, it was a win-win situation for everyone!

Yesterday I did something I haven’t done in quite a while – I went to McDonald’s and had a double cheeseburger.  Although many people might cringe at the idea of sinking their teeth into a greasy McDonald’s burger of dubious content, I have to say that it hit the spot.  As I was happily devouring my double cheeseburger of dubious content, I started to take stock of my surroundings.  Much had changed since my last visit!  The old linoleum floor had been replaced with attractive stone tiles.  The plain walls were covered with an appealing combination of paint and wood paneling.  I sat on a modern bar stool across from a private, four person booth.  TV’s were strategically placed in different parts of the room, and when I entered the main doors I was greeted by a sign stating that free internet was available.  The menu signs had all been updated – including many new menu items such as different coffees and healthier options.  Even the exterior was sporting a new, modern facelift.  I was impressed!

Unfortunately, my positive feelings were quickly dashed on the greasy floor of reality.  The nice stone floor was literally shining with grease and was in desperate need of a mop.  The tables were also coated in greasy spots that refused to be wiped away without a heavy-duty industrial cleaner.  There were numerous tables with trays of garbage that hadn’t been cleaned up.  The washroom – although modernized – could have kept a pathologist (and plumber) in business until the global markets stabilize.  And my double cheeseburger of dubious content was still the same double cheeseburger I remember – with the same McBowel Movement that I somehow forgot.  In essence, it was still the same old McDonald’s only with a new, ‘hip’ look.

Almost as soon as I finished my deliciously dubious double cheeseburger, I was struck by another thought – what if all my attempts to change the way I teach are also just nice facades hiding the same old greasy reality underneath?  Am I really making progress as a teacher or simply giving my teaching a tech friendly, pseudo-authentic, hip facelift?  Are the changes I’ve been working so hard to implement really dressing up an antiquated paradigm – or do they t truly reflect the demands and needs of a rapidly changing world?  Are the changes I’m making and the impact they have on my students ‘dubious’ like my double cheeseburger?

Although most of the changes happening in the educational realm are beneficial to students and their learning, I sometimes wonder if the reform that’s happening is simply covering up an antiquated system underneath.

Personally, I want to get out of the McDonald’s, fast food model of education altogether and move to something where my students can sit down and really engage with their food.  The issue with the McDonald’s style of education is that there is no engagement.  Students come in, quickly gobble down their food from a select menu that isn’t all that good or useful for them, and then leave.  Maybe feeling a little sick.  There is little personal connection and the food is cheap.

Instead, I want my students to come in, sit down with the expectation that they will be staying for awhile.  I want them to engage and eat deeply of their learning.  I want my student’s learning to cost them something.  True learning is never cheap, and where deep learning is occurring it will cost students their lives.  It will mean something.  But in order for this to happen the very ethos of my classroom needs to change, and perhaps this is where all transformational reform is aimed.

For the last five years I have been making McDonald’s-like changes to my classroom and it’s been good.  However, as I was sitting and eating my double cheeseburger of dubious content I realized that I need to continue getting out of the fast food industry style of education.  It’s a change I think my students will eat up!

This is a fantastic video that pokes fun at how ‘fotoshop’ can be used to give someone the appearance of beauty.  It’s a humorous and sobering look at a serious issue.  This video was created by Jesse Rosten.  Enjoy!

Several weeks ago I had the amazing opportunity to share about the theoretical framework that informs what I’m doing in my Adventure Co-op at the BCTELA (BC Teachers of English Language Arts) conference in Surrey, BC.  Three other learning centre English teachers and I presented a workshop entitled “Re-engaging the Disengaged” where we spoke on different strategies we’ve found effective for engaging students.  Although there is much more I could’ve shared, time was not so generous, and I could only briefly mention the biggest ideas that support some of the new ways I’m thinking about learning and teaching.  The (edited) notes from this workshop are below.

Risk Taking

I think I discovered why my students didn’t choose the creative assignments I created in my first year of teaching at the learning centre.  Choosing new, creative assignments involves risk and risk can lead to failure.  And many of my most disengaged students have been told that they’re failures by the school system, their parents, friends, and/or society.  A key goal of my co-op is to deconstruct the idea of failure.  To do this we played a computer game called “bloons” (www.bloons.com).

  • Students experienced failure, but continued trying – they learned from their mistakes.
  • These ideas have started to be embraced in my class.  I told one of my students he had to do part of an assignment over again, to which he responded, “Hey, I failed!” with a big grin on his face!

Assessment

I’ve stopped giving grades for student work.  How can I expect students to take risks if they’re getting marked on what they do?  Rather, I provide written/verbal feedback for student work so they have the opportunity to improve.  I’ll collect marks at the end of the course when students have had time to learn and practice how to read, write, and think.  This way of assessing takes the emphasis off performance (which can often lead to hoop jumping) and focus on real learning.  When we went over this in my class it was almost as if someone had released a steam valve in my class – the pressure was released.

UBD

Another key part of my co-op is rooted in UBD – understanding by design.  When I go hiking I have a destination I’m aiming for – I always know where I’m going.  Unfortunately, until this year, my course was like walking through a thick fog.  Not knowing the purpose behind why you’re doing something is deflating and de-motivating – personally, I get stressed out if I don’t understand the purpose behind an activity or task.  The same should apply for my students.  As such, I created two big questions to guide my entire co-op:

  1. How can I live an adventurous life?
  2. What does it take to be a successful person in the 21st century?

These questions give purpose behind why my students are in my class and are hopefully relevant to their interests and the real world.  For a disengaged student (for any student really) – knowing where they’re going is important.

I’ve also created six essential questions that give focus and direction to my Communications 12 and English 12 students – below are the essential questions for Com 12.  These questions were not haphazardly chosen but carefully and systematically crafted to reflect the big ideas in the PLOs (Prescribed Learning Outcomes) for Com 12.

1.  How can I avoid being controlled by the media?

2. How can I manipulate others through effective communication?

3. What does it take to be a powerful reader?

4. What does it take to get into my dream career?

5. How can I learn to think critically, creatively, and reflectively?

6. How and why should I learn to work together with other people?

Mastery Learning

Another important shift for me this year is a focus on mastery learning.  I want to avoid hoop jumping and ensure my students are actually learning and improving their skills and knowledge base.  To do this, I’ve tried to eliminate all assignments that are not very meaningful (like writing formal letters to the editor) and focus on assignments and projects that give me the most bang for the buck.  Students want to know that they will learn – I guarantee it in my class.

I remember quite clearly when I started my long practicum and my veteran sponsor teacher came up to me with the ‘don’t re-invent the wheel’ spiel.  There was much wisdom in these words during my practicum; however, I think we are approaching a time when perhaps we need to re-create the wheel.  Thoughts?

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